R. A. Fisher on race and human genetic variation

Youngronaldfisher2In New Creationists a philosopher at Duke recounts his experience when he attempted to explore the implications of group differences in ethics. He stated:

After reading some recent work on the biology of group differences last summer, it occurred to me that as an ethics professor, I should write something about the moral upshot: if there are such differences, what are the consequences for how we should treat one another? Should we support policies that attempt to equalize opportunities only if they produce equal outcomes?

My conclusion was modest: if there are biological differences between groups, and ifas Lee Jussim has argued, some stereotypes turn out to be accurate in part because of correct generalizations about biological differences, these facts should not undermine our commitment to treating one another as moral equals, or to increasing opportunity for all, regardless of group membership.

But I had committed a sin in the eyes of the two referees who read and commented on my paper. I simply acknowledged the possibility of group differences while arguing that whether or not they exist, they should not matter. For having done that, the two journal referees used expletives and exclamation points to give the most venomous and dismissive feedback I have ever encountered. (Needless to say, the paper was not accepted for publication after such hostile comments.)

 

This is obviously a touchy subject to many reasons. But, the extremely vehement reactions on this topic reveal an aspect of how ideas are policed in our society. Because I have a particular reputation I am privy to viewpoints from many people that they would be terrified to share with others. For example, many young geneticists seem to view the idea that “race is a myth” to be a noble lie.

There are legitimate issues in regards to phylogenetic classification systems. But, the key that many geneticists have noticed is that the lay public makes incorrect inferences from the assertion that “race is a myth.” For example, many people are confused as to why human populations exhibit structure, and one can generate phylogenetic trees. That’s because people translate the idea that race does not exist to one where human population structure is arbitrary and trivial. The conclusion obviously does not follow, depending on your definition of race. But I think one can see how the educated public is coming to these conclusions.

Here’s an article from the year 2000 in Do Races Differ? Not Really, Genes Show:

Scientists have long suspected that the racial categories recognized by society are not reflected on the genetic level. But the more closely that researchers examine the human genome — the complement of genetic material encased in the heart of almost every cell of the body — the more most of them are convinced that the standard labels used to distinguish people by “race” have little or no biological meaning.

They say that while it may seem easy to tell at a glance whether a person is Caucasian, African or Asian, the ease dissolves when one probes beneath surface characteristics and scans the genome for DNA hallmarks of “race.”

On the one hand there is an aspect of this article which is almost quaint. Note the references to 80,000 genes and such. But the general spirit captures the modern Zeitgeist well, and it is not dated at all. The idea of race implicit in this piece, and commonly held by the general public, is typological. That is, races are like Platonic ideal forms, and genes and traits are used to explore these ideal forms.

This is false. Races are not like ideal forms. That’s in part because modern human populations are by and large the consequence of massive admixture events between deeply diverged lineages. But, that does not negate the reality that population structure is a robust phenomenon, and, that its consequences are not trivial. My hunch is that some of the eye rolling that I’ve seen when younger geneticists refer to the idea that race is a myth has to do with the fact that population structure is such a big deal for genome-wide associations.

One of the implications of the above passage is that visual inspection allows for a clearer differentiation between individuals from different populations than genetics. This is false. As it happens the groups referred to above are among the most differentiated, as they don’t share common ancestors for ~40,000 years (South Asians on the other hand share ancestry with both “Caucasians” and “Asians” over the last 40,000 years), and are positioned at the extremities of the Afro-Eurasian world island. Genomics actually gives a clearer and more precise picture of population genetic differences.

The problem, if there is one, is that these population genetic differences are not necessarily good fits if one assumes a Platonic model of racial categorization. I think this explains the irritation and frustration with people who are confused as to the ancestral quantification results from firms like 23andMe. The results are true, and robust, reflections of genetic variation. But population groups are reifications, attempting to squeeze human digestible insight from systematic variation at hundreds of thousands of markers whose pattern of differences are a consequence of tens of thousands of years of population history.

Which brings me to the UNESCO statement on the Race Concept. Published around 1950 in a few versions these statements were signals that there was a change in the winds after World War II. Much of today’s conventional wisdom is prefigured in these statements. But if you read the 1952 version much of it is pretty moderate and I think it would be seen as “problematic” by many thinkers today. There are many familiar names (and some not familiar to me) in terms of scientists consulted. E.g., H. J. Muller, Theodosius Dobzhanksy and Ernst Mayr. But for me R. A. Fisher’s comments stood out. I knew he was a dissenter from the statement, but I’m going to cut and paste the whole section from him because I think it’s pretty interesting (and many might agree with him):

In so far as the Statement condemns any defamation of races and emphasizes the appalling nature of the recent abuse of racial theory, it has my full and unqualified approval. I wholeheartedly agree, also, with its explicit and implicit finding that anthropology and racial studies afford no justification for the assumption that members of any particular race are not entitled the enjoyment of all fundamental rights, or for any form of racial discrimination. And I am very glad that, after all the horrors that have been perpetrated, these principles should have been enunciated clearly and publicized widely by an organization of such standing and by distinguished men as the authors of this Statement.

But the Statement also purports to be an authoritative body of scientific doctrines, and this is quite a different matter. Without touching upon the content of these doctrines, and quite apart from whether or not they meet with my approval, I must register my fundamental opposition to the advancing of scientific theses as such, and protest against it.

I recall the National Socialists’ notorious attempts to establish certain doctrines as the only correct conclusions to be drawn from research on race, and their suppression of any contrary opinion; as well as the Soviet Government’s similar claim on behalf of Lysenko’s theory of heredity, and its condemnation of Mendel’s teaching. The present Statement likewise puts forward certain scientific doctrines as the only correct ones, and quite obviously expects them to receive general endorsement as such. I repeat that, without assuming any attitude towards the substance of the doctrines in the Statement, I am opposed to the principle of advancing them as doctrines. The experience of the past have strengthened my conviction that freedom of scientific enquiry is imperiled when any scientific findings or opinions are elevated, by an authoritative body, into the position of doctrines.

A different section of statement relays Fisher’s view of the empirical realities, which would make him extremely unpopular today:

Sir Ronald Fisher has one fundamental objection to the Statement, which, as he himself says, destroys the very spirit of the whole document. He believes that human groups differ profoundly “in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development” and concludes from this that the “practical international problem is that of learning to share the resources of this planet amicably with persons of materially different nature, and that this problem is being obscured by entirely well intentioned efforts to minimize the real differences that exist”.

This sort of comment from Fisher makes sense in light of his personality. I’m tempted to think that today he would be diagnosed as being “on the spectrum.” Arguably the most eminent evolutionary geneticist of the 20th century, he also made many original contributions to statistics. But as documented in his daughter’s biography of her father, he was a monomaniacal and selfish person, who lacked many social graces. There is a section in R.A. Fisher: The Life of a Scientist which documents his tendency to engage in arguments with people who shared his general conclusions on a given topic, but where he believed they engaged in fallacious reasoning (in this he seems to resemble Karl Popper). This tendency is clear above. Though he agrees with a broad liberal humanitarianism which looks darkly upon considerations of race, he disagrees with the presumption that these values are rooted in empirical facts.

Finally, I want to quote page 238 of my edition of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection:

The general consequences of race mixture can be predicted with confidence…Their general character will therefore be intermediate, but their variability will be greater than that of the original races. Morever, new combinations of virtue and ability, and of their opposites, will appear in the mixed race, combinations which are not necessarily heterozygous, but may be fixed as permanent racial characters. There are thus in the mixed race great possibilities for the action of selection. If selection is beneficient, and the better types leave the greater number of descendants, the ultimate effect of mixture will be the production of a race, not inferior to either those from which it sprang, but rather superior to both, in so far as the advantages of both can be combined. Unfavorable selection, on the other hand, will be more rapidly disastrous to a mixed race than to its progenitors. It should of course be remembered that all existing races show very great variability in respect of hereditary factors, so that selections of the intensity to which mankind is exposed would be capable of producing rapid changes, even in the purest existing race.

41PHSZN6AELFisher was writing this in the 1920s. This was near the tail end of the peak of white supremacy across the world. Charles Davenport, the director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, published Race Crossing in Jamaica in 1929. It presented a view where mixed-race children suffered due to crossing between diverged lineages. This was not an atypical view at the time. The man whom Fisher succeeded to a great extent as Britain’s most eminent statistician, Karl Pearson, was a socialist and feminist (Fisher was a political conservative whose views on women were more regressive than Pearson) who also believed that inter-group competition with “inferior races” was a major driver of the evolutionary progress of Europeans. The above passage shows that Fisher’s logical mind internalized Mendelianism and its necessary implications to such a great extent that as early as the 1920s he was already dismissive of the racialism ascendant at the time. But by the 1950s the dominant viewpoint differed, and here Fisher again stood his ground, not changing the things he had written in the later eugenic sections of tGToNS.

Note: R. A. Fisher had some unfortunate views on smoking. See When Genius Errs: R. A. Fisher and the Lung Cancer Controversy.

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